Thursday, April 26, 2018

History and truth

At The Electric Agora, E. John Winner reflected recently on a tragic – and relatively late – episode in the long history of the destruction of Native American culture and society: the Battle (or Massacre) of Wounded Knee. I have only a general sense of the history involved here, but the basic themes will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a colony or former colony or has knowledge of European colonialism.

What many people don't realize is that in many cases the main actors on the European side saw their actions in positive and idealistic terms. I know a bit about British colonial activity during the 18th and 19th centuries and, if you read the letters and reports of the people involved (administrators, professionals, etc.), the sense of responsibility and moral seriousness is often palpable. Certainly they saw what they were doing in very different terms from how we tend to see it today.

That said, in most cases they underestimated the complexity and sophistication of the indigenous cultures with which they came into contact and which in many cases were almost totally destroyed.

There is, I think, a general acceptance that politics – and especially geopolitics – doesn't actually work according to principles of justice; in other words, that wealth, technology and ultimately force are more important driving forces. Consequently, claims based on moral or justice-related grounds are often seen in rhetorical and political terms. They may not even necessarily be believed in (in any real sense) by those initiating or promoting the claims. Claims based on generalized notions of justice (and especially on notions of social justice) are often wielded merely as political weapons.

My own inclination in dealing with historical narratives is to try not to expropriate them for political purposes, because this inevitably leads to distortion. The aim becomes not so much to understand what happened as to find or develop a politically effective narrative, to have a useful story. The story is judged not according to criteria such as balance or truth (i.e. whether it derives from a plausible interpretation of available primary sources) but rather in terms of perceived usefulness for bringing about a desired political outcome.

I am more comfortable dealing with terms like "probity", "decency", "cruelty" and "betrayal" than with more abstract and generalized concepts (like "justice" or "social progress"). The former can often be read out of primary sources fairly directly. By contrast, the latter – more often than not – are read into such sources by historians or activists who have their own preconceived ideas about what justice or social progress is or should look like.

We come to terms with the past only to the extent that we understand it. And understanding history inevitably involves being open to a range of (often conflicting) perspectives or points of view.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Justice, injustice and truth

What follows is a short extract from an essay of mine which was published earlier this month at The Electric Agora on truth and justice. In this passage, I raise a couple of logical and linguistic points about justice (relating to negation and markedness), as well as noting the asymmetry between the concepts justice and truth (the former being dependent on the latter, but not the latter on the former).

[...] Just as the positive rights implicit in social justice are more controversial and contested than negative rights (like liberty), so the concept of justice is (I would suggest) more problematic than the concept of injustice or of a miscarriage of justice. You could argue about whether a person guilty of a crime, for example, ought to be punished in this way or that or punished at all or even blamed. (There might have been extenuating circumstances.) But there would be no disagreement at all about the wrongness of a miscarriage of justice, where a person innocent of a particular crime was convicted; or with respect to cases of a broadly similar kind but which do not involve the court system (so that the term miscarriage of justice would not apply). With respect to the latter, I am thinking of situations – not hard to find, it must be said – in which a person is disadvantaged or penalized in some significant way for what is generally accepted as honest and exemplary behavior.

Another point that seems interesting to me here pertains to the linguistic concept of markedness. Markedness phenomena crop up in many linguistic contexts, like grammatical gender for example. Feminine nouns and adjectives often derive and take their core meaning from the unmarked masculine form. (A suffix might be added to signify a feminine noun or adjective.) Markedness can also apply to antonyms and negation. But it seems that certain negative forms are more uncontroversial and may be clearer than their positive equivalents. This is slightly odd given that the marked negative form of an expression (like ‘injustice’) is in a real sense dependent on and derives its meaning from the unmarked positive form (‘justice’). How is it then that cases of injustice can be more readily understood and less controversial than questions of justice? It is as though the semantics is pulling in one direction (making ‘injustice’ the primary term) and morphology and syntax in another.

Note also that the two concepts, truth and justice, are not symmetrically related. Truth relates directly to justice. The legal process is designed to uncover the truth of what happened, and perjury is a serious offense. One talks of someone being falsely accused. But justice doesn’t relate directly to questions of truth and falsity. Claims are true or false according entirely to non-justice-related criteria. Justice (or injustice) just doesn’t come into it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018


I have been neglecting this and my other Blogger site and concentrating on writing essays for Dan Kaufman's Electric Agora and (usually) posting shorter versions (plus links) to my G+ collections. I had intended to crosspost relevant essays here but haven't been doing this. I will be doing so in the future, however.

Over the past couple of years I have written quite a lot of material, and my essays have attracted a bit of attention and garnered about 1500 comments in total.

The Electric Agora is not my site, however, and I don't have any control over it: over whether or in what form it continues, for example.
So I am thinking that I could use this site to bring together (possibly in revised form and/or with a view to reworking them) all of my relevant pieces from the EA (and elsewhere).

Again, one has no control over how particular platforms such as Blogger or G+ are going to develop (if indeed they continue), nor of course can one predict with any confidence how the general informational and communicational landscape is going to evolve in the future.

My intention is just to stick to the sites I currently have or contribute to.

Including my Twitter account... @mark_english1.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Arguments about existence

I haven't been posting here lately, even to the extent of linking to articles of mine which are being published at The Electric Agora. My most recent article at the EA was a response to some claims that Daniel Kaufman had been making about the existence of things like selves and agreements. He was making more of the "existence" of these things than I would, and was attempting to set up what I see as a false dichotomy between the physical sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other. He doesn't believe that evolutionary biology or neuropsychology, for example, have a lot to tell us about social reality.

As is usual at the site, there was quite a good discussion in the comments section. But whether this discussion goes any further will probably depend on whether Dan continues to publish pieces on this particular question. He may do, as he indicated that he was planning to write a book on the subject.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Brutal reality?

[Recently posted to my Google+ collection Language, Logic, Life.]

Dan Kaufman recently got a bit of flak (even from his wife apparently) for his energetic critique of the new – or continuing – 'cult of the self'.

"... [T]he old Cult of the Self [the reference here is to the 1970s and '80s and such movements as Werner Erhard's 'est' program] actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way."

He is saying that the older movements did not really disguise their egoistic nature whereas more recent iterations – while still basically egoistic – present themselves as being driven by humane motives.

"... [T]oday’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such.  Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me."


I commented (in part) as follows:

"My default position is that something like that "brutal" position is probably 'true' in the sense that it correlates well with reality. But this could be seen as a dangerous idea. It seems to me there is a key divide here on how people see the world (and themselves). I don't know, however, that I would want to push this idea too much: social consequences may not be good. There is no reason to think that just because something is true, it is something one should talk about. I've never liked the 'noble lie' idea, but reticence is slightly different from this. Reticence – like lying, actually – is ... something I am not particularly good at, however."

I also suggested in the comment that Max Stirner's radical egoism – which Leszek Kolakowski saw as prefiguring fascism – was an important precursor to the movements Dan Kaufman was attacking.

In due course I will try to expand on these somewhat cryptic remarks. It could form the basis for a new Electric Agora article (or articles). But let me here and now try to put the core idea more directly.

I am suggesting that the standard way of seeing things involves a lot of self-deception and (to use a loaded term which may or may not be appropriate here) hypocrisy.

Fundamentally the social world works just like the natural world described by biologists. Evolutionary processes are not pretty. Having language and culture adds complexity and richness and gives us freedoms and possibilities which other animals do not have. But it does not allow us to escape this world of deception, manipulation and struggle. A basic kind of ethics and very basic notions of rights and responsibilities make sense: as individuals we survive longer and prosper when we cooperate. But a Christian or socialist-style ethic – based on a kind of generalized altruism (or generosity) mixed with self-denial and deemed to be in some sense obligatory – is problematic, both in terms of its consequences for those individuals (very few, it must be said) who sincerely and seriously try to implement such an ethic in their lives, and in terms of rational motivation.

Still a bit cryptic perhaps. But it is an attempt at least to clarify (in my own mind as well as in a more public sense) the supposedly "dangerous" idea I was talking about not talking about!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The trivial isn't necessarily trivial

[Recently posted to my Google+ collection, Language, Logic, Life.]  At one point in John le CarrĂ©'s early classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas, a British secret service agent, is staying on the Dutch coast, waiting for an important and fateful meeting. His thoughts turn to a woman who had looked after him when he had became ill in a rented room in London. Liz had been a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause.

"... At about eleven o'clock the next morning [Leamas] decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

"There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ..."

Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is very tempting to go along with this line of thinking.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On reasonableness

Most people don't like being told what they should do or how they should think. Moralizing, in particular, gets under people's skin.

In a recent piece at The Electric Agora, Daniel Kaufman makes the very plausible point that overuse of terms like 'should', far from encouraging people to act in a certain way, often only encourages them to 'hunker down' or become defiant.

But his claim about people losing respect for "reasonableness itself" is not so plausible, I think.

He wrote:

"Just as stupid, petty, and unenforceable laws cause the public to lose respect for law generally, and just as – I think – the wild overuse of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ and their cognates has eroded respect for morality, the proliferation of weak, groundless, often self-serving “shoulds,” whether of the moral variety or otherwise, may cause people to lose respect for reasonableness itself.”

Would it not rather be the case that respect would be lost for the person – and by extension the category of person – doing the ‘shoulding’?

I don’t think reasonableness is at risk at all. Reasonableness is and will remain widely respected. It has power and force and always will.

You could say, I suppose, that it is not reasonableness but the appearance of reasonableness that counts. Calm and cool wins arguments. Even Donald Trump strives to appear reasonable at times.

But the thing is, it’s hard to separate reasonableness from the appearance of reasonableness, because reasonableness is not just about reason but also about manners and behaviour.

And if you are giving a good enough impression of reasonableness then you are – for all intents and purposes – being reasonable.